There are many ways to kill a character. You can stab him in the back with a rusty knife. You can hang him from a tree at dawn. You can starve him, drown him, or put him in a hole. You can make him stand on a tar pit until his body is subsumed by the sticky, hot, thick liquid, and he slowly suffocates, knowing his body will be preserved for ages. Or, as Edwin Brock says in “Five Ways to Kill a Man,” you can see that he is living somewhere in the twentieth century… and leave him there.
But how do you make your audience care?
One of the most useful things I ever heard on this subject was in the extras to The Incredibles. Originally, in the middle of the movie, a pilot was supposed to fly the plane instead of Mrs. Incredible. The idea was that he would die when they crashed on the island, but it turned out they had to devote too much screen time to him to make it worth killing him. So they just took him out of the movie altogether.
It was such a wise decision. Because they knew that if they just killed him, without establishing his story and why he was a character worth caring about, then his death—and life—would be pointless, wastes of screen time. It wouldn’t make the viewers sad, it wouldn’t make them suddenly realize how high the stakes were or worry about the main characters more, and it wouldn’t make them more invested in stopping the villain. Because no one cares when you kill a red shirt.
Murder On the Mind
There are many things that can put a writer in the mood for murder… Writer’s block, corrupted files, getting notes back from their editor… But I think the most important thing to think about when fitting your character with a pair of cement shoes is to figure out why you want him dead so badly. Only once you understand your own motives can you begin give him a funeral to remember. Here are a few of the most basic—and effective—reasons to kill a character.
- Don’t Fear the Reaper. In some cases, killing the character is simply the logical conclusion to the character’s arc, and when you reach that point, as fond as you may have become of your character, letting him ride happily off into the sunset would actually ruin the character’s story. As awful as it sounds to say it, sometimes, in order to do right by your character, you have to kill them. Most tales of heroic sacrifice follow this trend. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, King Arthur’s death is the perfect end to his arc. He fights it at first—tries to abandon his path—and eventually must come to accept what his values are, what he loves, and what he must do in order to be true to himself.
- Why So Serious? Much like taking hostages, people sometimes kill characters to prove they’re serious—that their villains are evil, their hero’s situation is dire, and that no one is safe. This is by far the most popular reason to kill characters. And the most effective way to accomplish this is to kill someone who the reader does not expect will be killed. Someone badass, innocent, or important. Someone who will make the reader question their faith in happy endings. When you kill to prove you’re serious, you’re validating the threat against the characters and the virtue of their cause. Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones are legendary for doing this kind of killing with style, but one of my favorite examples is actually The Passage, by Justin Cronin. The Passage uses the deaths of people to set the mood and state the severity of the circumstances—and not one of them is cliché. With every character death, it feels as though it is both the end of that character’s arc, and a strong statement in the plot.
- Hell Is Other People (Dying). My favorite reason to kill is to make your other character’s lives hell. Also known as “character motivation.” It can also involve the end of a character’s arc and threat validation, but it has the added bonus of making your other characters miserable, which is really the most important part of killing a character. After all, a happy character is a boring character. But you shouldn’t kill off your character’s loved ones every time you want to make a statement—it’s kind of gauche, for one thing, and also, you’ll run out of loved ones at some point. It’s something to be used sparingly, more like an exclamation point than a period, and their impact on your characters should be greater when they are dead than alive. One of my favorite examples of this is in Canticle by Ken Scholes, in which his use of character death turns one of the villains into one of the most sympathetic characters.
Questions First—Then Kill (Your Characters)
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you kill a character:
1. Why does the character deserve to die?
2. What unresolved issues remain once the character dies?
3. How will the other characters react to this character’s death?
4. If this were a movie, would I cry when this character died?
5. What would his arc be if I let him live instead?
6. What would be the best possible death for this character?
7. What would be the worst possible death for this character?
8. What will this character’s death do to the mood?
9. What will this character’s death do to my perception of the other characters?
10. Why is this character worth more dead than alive?
Killing characters is always controversial—but I firmly believe in not shying from it when necessary. Martyrs are made and characters are forged with the careful killing of characters. I know more than one character death has had me bawling, or made me sympathize with the devil. At the risk of inviting spoilers, what character deaths had the most impact on you, as a reader? And if you’re a writer, why do you kill your characters?